City begins forming plans in response to November election results
City officials are gearing up to tackle changes in City Council representation as well as decreased funding for affordable housing projects as the city and residents start 2013.
The changes are a result of the Nov. 6 election in which voters approved a geographic district representation plan and voted down a $78.2 million housing bond.
For the first time, geographic representation
After receiving voter support in November, the City of Austin is moving forward to establish new district boundaries that supporters say could change the face of City Council. Meanwhile, proponents of an affordable housing initiative that was voted down are considering how to move forward.
“It’s really a historic thing we should be proud of,” said Jessica Ellison, spokeswoman for Austinites for Geographic Representation. “For the first time, we are opening up the door to grass-roots candidates that have never had access to City Hall before. I think it’s going to be a really exciting race in 2014. There are going to be people on the council elected from districts that have never had representation before, and the more real and true representative democracy we have, the better off we’ll be as a city.”
City of Austin Auditor Ken Mory said the city is in the beginning phases of selecting a Citizens Redistricting Commission, which will help draw the lines for 10 geographic districts from which council will be elected, as well as an Applicant Review Panel, which will help select the Citizens Redistricting Commission members. The city gathered public input on encouraging participation in the districting process Dec. 4.
“I think it is a fairly complex process to make sure that we do it right,” Mory said. “It’s a big change for the City of Austin. What we do today is going to set the procedures that will be followed [in the future.]”
To draw the new district boundaries, the city’s charter now requires an independent CRC be established that consists of 14 members who have been registered to vote for at least five years, voted in three of the past five city elections and who have no conflicts of interest. The charter also stipulates the process through which the commission is selected.
To form the CRC, the city auditor will randomly select a three-person Applicant Review Pannel out of a pool of applicants. The ARP will then select 60 potential CRC members from a pool of applicants.
Each City Council member may remove one applicant from the chosen 60-person applicant pool. From the remaining applicants, the city auditor will randomly draw eight names for the commission.
The eight commission members will then select six additional members to complete the commission. At least one commission member must be a college student. Any district map the commission draws must be approved by the Department of Justice, and the districting process is expected to be complete in time for November elections.
One concern raised by Councilman Chris Riley at a Dec. 4 work session was the possible exclusion of residents who have lived in the same area for longer than five years but were annexed into the city earlier than the past five years. He said that according to the city’s demographer, 25,708 residents have been annexed into the city since January 2008.
“As we’re going through this provision, we’ve come across a number of interpretive issues, such as the one that you suggest,” said John Steiner, integrity officer with the city. “We’re going to have to come to shore on how we mean to apply the provision in those situations.”
Funding for affordable housing
While the city is working to implement new district boundaries, city staff and proponents of affordable housing are looking for alternative ways to continue funding projects that would aid residents in finding economically viable options for shelter, rent and home ownership.
The housing bond, which failed to pass in the Nov. 6 election, would have levied about $78.2 million in general obligation bonds for housing and shelter.
“[The failure] will have a devastating impact on our affordable housing stock for women, children, veterans and the elderly,” Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole said. “We have to act.”
Cole said one of the city’s goals set in 2010 to build 350 new units of permanent supportive housing by 2014 is put in jeopardy without the general obligation bond funding from the Nov. 6 election. Permanent supportive housing is a type of affordable housing that allows eligible residents to find a permanent home and receive local health services.
“We recognize [affordable housing] is an urgent need of the city, and we are exploring what are our options, but there have been no decisions made,” Cole said. “There certainly is no easy way.”
In 2006, the city passed its first bond relating to affordable housing, totaling $55 million for projects including repair, construction and renovations for low-income residents. City officials said the 2006 bond was meant to fill a gap from a decrease in federal funding.
According to information provided by the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department, about $21.5 million in bond funding went to projects assisting very low-income people and families. The 2006 bond funded construction of 2,593 units of affordable housing in the city, some of which are still under construction, and leveraged about $196.2 million from the $55 million in bond funds through private lenders, tax credits, federal funding and other sources.
David Potter, housing development manager with the NHCD, said that going forward, the department will work with developers to determine affordable housing projects’ potential need for this year.
“This department, the folks here are pretty passionate about [affordable housing projects],” Potter said. “We just really want to keep the momentum going, because this was a successful program.”
NHCD Director Betsy Spencer said the department spent an average of about $9 million a year on affordable housing projects since 2006.
At the Dec. 13 City Council meeting, council members approved City Manager Marc Ott to identify potential resources, up to $10 million, for affordable housing projects.